An open letter to Christian Concern

I have today written to Christian Concern, a lobby group opposed to same-sex marriage. I decided to do so in response to claims they have made regarding a change in the law announced this week.

The government has announced that the ban on civil partnerships taking place in religious premises will be lifted on 5 December. This is good news for those of us who campaigned for and supported this change, and it’s been a long time coming. The change was approved by Parliament in the Equality Act, passed in April 2010. It’s taken the coalition government this long to implement it.

The change does not go far enough. This is not same-sex marriage. It still does not provide all people with equality before the law, regardless of their gender, sexuality, religious or non-religious views.

The Equality Bill, rightly, makes very clear that no church or other faith group should be obliged to host same-sex partnerships if they do not believe in them. Despite this, Christian Concern claimed in a press release on Wednesday that ”It is almost certain that homosexual campaigners will commence litigation against churches that refuse”.

I have sent the following email to Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern.

 

Dear Andrea and colleagues,

Thank you for your press release giving Christian Concern’s views on the change in the law with regard to civil partnerships on religious premises.

You’re probably aware that this is a subject on which we disagree, although I of course respect your right to a different view, as well as your right to put out statements expressing your own views. I think this is important for free speech and religious liberty.

Please can you explain the following sentence in your press release? ”It is almost certain that homosexual campaigners will commence litigation against churches that refuse”.  This claim appears early on in your press release and was quoted in today’s Church Times

Please can you let me know of any campaign groups, or individual campaigners, of whom you are aware, who are planning to take such action, or have discussed the possibility of doing so? 

When campaigning for a change in the law, I strongly emphasised my conviction that no church or other faith group should be required to carry out ceremonies in which they do not believe. As far as I’m aware, this is the position of every religious group that has campaigned for this change. In terms of non-religious campaigners, I know that Peter Tatchell is against any attempt to force churches to host civil partnerships or carry out same-sex weddings. I am aware that Ben Summerskill of Stonewall made a vague comment along the lines of “this may change”, with regard to the right of faith groups not to host same-sex ceremonies. But this is not Stonewall policy and I am not aware of him having taken the idea further. This is very different to anyone planning to “commence litigation”.

Your release asserts that litigation is not merely possible or even likely, but “almost certain”. Such a claim cannot realistically be sustained unless you are aware of a campaign group or campaigner seriously considering legal action. If you can provide me with the name or names of such a group or campaigner, then I will readily admit that  the statement is not necessarily inaccurate. If you cannot do so, I hope you will recognise that it is misleading, and therefore apologise and withdraw the claim.

I look forward to hearing from you. 

Shalom,

Symon 

7 responses to “An open letter to Christian Concern

  1. I think that the precedent in terms of faith based adoption agencies losing the ability to exclude same sex couples because they were carrying out a public authority role is the same logic whereby churches carrying out the public authority role of marriage will sooner or later be told that they cannot discriminate.

    Precedence and logic is on the side of CC’s argument, whether you agree with their opposition or not. A Conservative MP apparently has made that case to Cameron: that churches which refuse same sex couples should lose the right to marry.

    If you truly believe that LGB people ought not to be discriminated against and the last place that this should happen is the Church of Jesus Christ, why would you possibly tolerate this anomaly?

    I am in favour of same sex marriage. This was not always a fashionable position. Now social attitudes and equality laws have changed usually making religion the underdog when it comes to conflict. Christian Concern have done some good work hi-lighting persecution of Christians in developing countries and they present an interesting juxta-position here.
    http://www.christianconcern.com/our-concerns/sexual-orientation/widdecombe-urges-protection-for-christians-as-well-as-homosexuals?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

    • Thanks for your comment, Matt.

      I take your point about adoption agencies. However, while adoption agencies are clearly providing a public authority function, I don’t think that the same can be said about churches providing marriage. Also, it’s worth noting that most churches can already turn down couples who they think do not really share the values and faith of their church. A mixed-sex couple cannot insist that a church marries them, so it seems highly unlikely that a same-sex couple would be able to insist on it. I admit that the situation may be slightly different for the Church of England, due to its anachronistic role as the state church, and this is a reminder for me to check up on that.

      When Christian Concern argue that the law may eventually change to make it obligatory for churches to carry out same-sex ceremonies, I disagree with them but respect their right to make this argument. I think this is very different to their argument in this case, which is that the specific law being implemented on 5 December will lead to litigation. Having read the wording of the relevant clause in the Equality Act, it seems to me to make it very, very clear that there is no case for suing churches that do not want to carry out same-sex ceremonies under this law.

      I’m glad you support same-sex marriage. I think it’s appalling that any church should deny it, and I will campaign to persuade them not to do so, but I will not campaign for them to be forced not to do so. This is because I think that churches and other religious groups should be able to carry out marriages on the basis of their own beliefs. I do not see it as a public service in the way I see adoption agencies as a public service. I think the change that is now being implemented will cause some complications, but this is because marriage law is such a mess. Different religious groups have different rights (as do different couples, of course) in a way that is clearly discriminatory. We need a thorough overhaul of marriage law.

      • They may not be providing a public service, but they are providing a service, in the same way as guest-house owners, and we know what the precedent is there. The fact that the owners applied the same principles to unmarried different-sex couples wasn’t a defence, so it seems likely that the same principle would be applied: civil partnerships are to be regarded as identical to marriage, to you can’t refuse to perform civil partnerships on different grounds to those that you would use to refuse marriages, and the courts have shown they are statutorily bound not to regard a belief that civil partnerships are qualitatively different from marriages as valid such grounds.

        There’s also the case of the stately home which had its license to perform civil marriages revoked because of its owner’s reluctance to allow it to be used for civil partnerships. Why would that precedent not apply to churches too?

        Taking these precedents into account, it seems to me not beyond the realm of possibility that a disgruntled couple refused a civil partnership could sue on the grounds that a service was being provided in a way which treated civil partnership as different from marriages, something banned by statute, and fairly likely that if they did they would win.

  2. Can I presume from the silence that you have realised I am correct with regards to the legal basis for a challenge to a church with a blanket policy of not performing civil partnerships?

    Can I further presume that as you asked Christian Concern to apologise and withdraw their claim should it be found to be inaccurate, as in the event it turns out that it is your statement that has been found to be inaccurate you will hold yourself to the same standard, withdraw this letter and publicly apologise?

      • Dear A,

        Thanks for your comments. I’m very sorry not to have replied sooner; I’ve been very busy and at times, not too well.

        I think you make a good point about how marriage and civil partnership have been ruled by judges to be legally equivalent when it comes to discrimination claims. Indeed, of the various arguments advanced to suggest that churches will be sued for refusing to hold civil partnerships, this is the only one that seems to have any substance to it.

        Nonetheless, I think you’re mistaken. When you give the example of the hotel, you point out that this is *civil marriage*. Civil and religious marriage are treated differently by the law in several ways. While religious groups will now be allowed to host civil partnerships in their premisess, they will not be allowed to host same-sex marriages. Therefore, they will not only be allowed but will be required to treat same-sex and mixed-sex couples differently.

        You may well argue that changes in the law could eventaully lead to chuarches being sued. I think this is unlikely, but I appreciate that a case could be made for that argument. This is very different to Christian Concern’s claim that that *this specific law*, coming into force on 5 December, will lead to churches being sued. The wording of the law clearly rules this out.

        It would be unconvincing if Christian Concern said that such litigation was likely. It is dangerously misleading to suggest that it is “almost certain”.

        Christian Concern haev not yet provided me with evidence that their claim has any substance to it. Indeed, they have not even be polite enough to reply to my letter.

        Symon

  3. Pingback: Farage still scaremongering about same-sex marriage | Symon Hill

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